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Odd Lots

  • Lenin’s head is missing. It was last seen rolling around a forest near Berlin 23 years ago, but nobody can find it now, even though it weighs three and a half tons. (Thanks to Pete Albrecht for the link.)
  • Evidently Lenin loses his head a lot. Somehow that doesn’t surprise me. Shame it didn’t happen in 1890 or so.
  • How far does $100 go in your state? (Backstory here.) Be careful; the figures are state-wide averages. It’s much worse in urban cores. (Thanks to Tony Kyle for the link.)
  • If you’ve never seen one, here’s an ad-farm article. I’ve often wondered if these are machine generated, written by people who don’t know English well, or machine-obfuscated copies of legitimate articles, intended to duck news providers’ plagiarism bots.
  • Wired volcanologist Eric Klemetti reports that a swarm of small earthquakes may presage an eruption from Iceland’s Barðarbunga volcano. The volcano is interesting because its name contains the ancient letter eth (ð) something I don’t recall seeing on Web news sites in a lot of years. To generate an eth on Windows, by the way, just enter Alt-0240.
  • Wired misses as often as it hits. One of its supposed futurists is telling us that the educated elite should be able to license reproduction, and dictate who can and who cannot have babies. By the way, his description of who is unfit to reproduce sounds a lot like the nonwhite urban poor. Articles of this sort are about as wise as “The Case for Killing Granny,” which put Newsweek in a world of hurt back in 2009.
  • To make you love this guy even more, let me quote a summary of presentation he did on Red Ice Radio: “Zoltan argues that ultimately technology will be helpful to the ‘greater good’ and must be implemented, even if by force and even if there are causalities along the way. In the second hour, Zoltan philosophizes about technology as evolution and luck as the prime mover of the human experience. He talks about maximizing on the transhumanist value for the evolution of our species. We parallel transhumanism with religious thinking. He’ll speak in favor of controversial subjects such as a transhumanist dictatorship, population control, licenses to have children and people needing to justify their existence in front of a committee, much like the Fabian Socialist George Bernard Shaw’s idea.” If I were a transhumanist, I’d be ripping him several new ones right now. Or is transhumanism really that nasty?
  • Nobel laureate physicist Frank Wilczek is not proposing thiotimoline, nor anything else (I think) having to do with time travel. He believes that he’s broken the temporal symmetry of nature…which sounds devilish and full of interesting possibilities. As soon as I figure out what the hell it all means, time crystals will land in one of my hard SF concepts in -5 milliseconds.
  • Michael Covington reminded us on Facebook that there are a surprising number of plurals with no singular form, including kudos, biceps, suds, and shenanigans. (I do wonder, as does Bill Lindley, if the very last bubble in the sink is a sud.)
  • That discussion in turn reminded me of a concept for an END piece in PC Techniques that I took notes on but never wrote: the KUDOS operating system, which lacks error messages but pays you a compliment every time you do anything right. In 1992 I was thinking of purely textual compliments, but these days I imagine a spell-checker that plays “Bravo!” on the speakers every time you spell a word correctly. Wouldn’t that be fun?

Odd Lots

Odd Lots

Odd Lots

Doubt and the Scientific Method

This took me by surprise: Over in that global laboratory of abnormal psychology that most of us call Facebook, a man I’ve know for almost 35 years grew furious at me. My crime? A longstanding contention of mine that doubt lies at the heart of the scientific method. Note well that we were not talking about Issues. Not evolution, not climate, not even the Paleo Diet. None of that had even come up. No: We were talking about the scientific method itself.

I’ve seen this weird “doubt undermines science” business come up before, though never directed at me personally. Nonsense, of course. Doubt really does lie at the heart of the scientific method. This is not some opinion of mine that I pulled out of thin air. Hey, if somebody wants to start a new game show called “Are You Smarter Than Karl Popper?” I can recommend the first season’s contestants.

Here’s my understanding: The scientific method requires a trigger, and that trigger is doubt. Some smart guy or gal looks at something we think we know, often but not always after examining a pile of new data, and says, “This smells fishy. Let’s take a closer look and see what we can learn.” That initial insight leads to hypothesis, experiment, repeatable results, and eventually (one would hope) new or corrected knowledge. Absent doubt, nobody thinks anything smells fishy, no closer look happens, and whatever booboo might be in there somewhere never comes to light. Without doubt, there is no science.

It’s pretty much that simple.

So how do we explain my excoriation for stating the obvious? I have a theory, heh. It involves those idiotic Facebook memes that set religion against science. Some are worse than others; my personal antifavorite is the one that reads, “Religion flies aircraft into buildings. Science flies spacecraft to the Moon.” Gosh, was it the Episcopalians? And did engineering maybe have a role? Let it pass; there are plenty more. What they represent is tribal chest-thumping by people who want to replace religion with science. That sounds fishy to me. I probed a little and began to get a suspicion that what the chest-thumpers really want is the certainty of religion under a new name.

What tipped me off is the fact that the chest-thumpers were always talking about scientific knowledge, but never the scientific method. The reason is pretty simple: The scientific method is the single most subversive system of thought that humanity has ever created. Nothing that we know (or think we know) is safe from the scientific method. Not even physical laws. Back in the 1950s there was a physical law called the Law of Parity, holding that nature does not differentiate left from right at the subtomic level. Some physicists thought the Law of Parity smelled fishy. They put their heads together, came up with some truly brilliant experiments, and snick! They nailed the Law of Parity through an eye socket. They nailed it because they doubted it. And we’re not talking the Paleo Diet here. We’re talking a law of physics.

That scares people with a strong craving for certainty. At this point we need to talk a little bit about the religious impulse. Note well that I am not talking about religion itself here. I’m talking about the primal hunger for certain things that religion provides. The two biggies are meaning and certainty. (Belonging is a third biggie, but I feel that religion inherits the hunger for belonging from its primal sibling, the tribal impulse. I’ll have to take that up another time.) As anyone who’s read Viktor Frankl has learned, “meaning” is an important but slippery business. I’ve thought about it a lot, and it looks to me like the meaning we see in our lives grows out of order. There is huge comfort in living lives that follow a predictable template. We all imagine lives lived reliably in a certain way. We do not imagine chaotic lives, and generally avoid chaos when we can. (We may grumble about the template we’re currently living, but what we want is a better template, not chaos.) When chaos strikes, our lives can quickly move from meaningful to meaningless. A need for certainty follows from the need for order. We want to be certain that we’ve chosen a path that leads toward meaning. As often as not, this means choosing templates that work for us and embracing them without doubt. Some people take this too far, and become reactionaries or fanatics who insist that the templates they’ve discovered are the only ones that anyone should embrace. Alas, this is where the religious impulse gets tangled up in the tribal impulse, which, unimpeded by laws or cultural norms, gallops straight toward genocide.

Religion satisfies the religious impulse by providing us with wisdom narratives that suggest life templates, calendars of rituals and festivals that repeat down the years and reinforce a sense of the orderly passing of time, and saints as heroes whose very meaningful lives may be emulated. (I hope my religious friends will relax a little here and look closely at what I’m saying: I am not denying that God is behind religion. I’m suggesting the mechanisms by which God gets our attention and calls us home.)

What’s happening in our secular era is that religion is becoming less prevalent and (in our own culture, at least) less strident. People who feel the religious impulse strongly need to get their meaning (via order) and certainty somewhere else. Science is handy. Science makes for bad religion, however, because it creates its own heretics and subverts its own wisdom narratives. It creates disorder via doubt, in the cause of creating new order that more accurately reflects physical reality. Certainty in science is always tentative: What the scientific method gives, the scientific method can take away.

This makes people of certain psychologies batshit nuts.

I’ll leave it there for now. I’m something of an anomaly, in that my need for order doesn’t march in lockstep with any need for certainty. I’m an empiricist. I’ve created an orderly and meaningful life that works for me, but when circumstances require change, I grit my teeth and embrace the change. Incremental change is one way to avoid chaos, after all: Deal with it a little at a time, and you won’t have to deal with an earthquake later on.

In a sense, I live my life by the scientific method. Sometimes I doubt that that what I’m doing is the right thing for me. I stop, think about it, and often discover a better way. Doubt keeps pointing me in the right direction, as it does for science. Certainty, well…that points in the opposite direction, toward brittleness and chaos. Science doesn’t go there. None of us should either.

Odd Lots

  • Our new concrete gets its sealer coat tomorrow, and once it dries it’ll be (finally!) done. I’ll post a photo. So far we think it’s gorgeous.
  • This article has been shared again and again and again on Facebook, and it caught my attention because it echoes something I wrote about in 2009: That because our stuff is lasting longer, we need less stuff, be it forks or cars. And the cars are piling up…or are they? Alas, the article is nonsense (it did smell a little funny to me) and here’s the point-by-point takedown.
  • Here’s the best detailed article on bacteriophage therapy I’ve seen in quite awhile. It’s a hard read, but a good one. Sooner or later, as antibiotics fail us one by one, we’re going to have to go this way. (Phages look very cool, as well.)
  • The scientific method wins again: We thought we knew the physics behind same-material static electricity. We were wrong. Doubt really does lie at the very heart of science, in that if we don’t doubt what we think we know, we have no chance of finding our mistakes.
  • Now that eggs aren’t evil anymore, it’s worth exploring all the various ways to prepare them. If you like hard-boiled eggs, here’s the best explanation I’ve seen of how to boil them so that they’ll peel easily and without divots.
  • Adobe’s Creative Cloud was down for some time. The issue’s been resolved, but it just confirms my ancient suspicion that putting everything on the cloud is a really bad idea. If I can’t access my software, I can’t work. Pretty much end of story.
  • Blue light keeps you awake. Staying awake shortens your life. So as the day winds down, Turn the Damned Thing Off. Then read a book until you’re sleepy. I recommend any substantial history book, with a special nod to histories of the Byzantine Empire. (Thanks to Dermot Dobson for the link.)
  • This is the company that makes the machines that play the songs on ice cream trucks. Or at least the ones in the UK.

Odd Lots

  • The forms are in place. The new roadbase fill has been leveled and compacted, and the rebar laid. Concrete should be here in less than an hour. Damn, we’re ready.
  • Here’s a concise (and hilarious) summary of everything wrong with science journalism, which is (alas) pretty much everything.
  • If the human mind can’t be modeled, it can’t be emulated. Which makes me wonder what sort of non-human intelligence we may be able to create computationlly, and whether we’d recognize it as intelligence if we did.
  • One of my very favorite scientists, the Vatican Observatory’s Dr. Guy Consolmagno, said four years ago that if aliens come to Earth and ask to be baptised, the Church would be happy to do it–but only if they asked. There are theological questions here: Would all aliens be subject to original sin? Would each world have its own Incarnation? James Blish explored this a little (if in a rather 50s way) in A Case of Conscience . Now Pope Francis has apparently reiterated it on the Vatican news site.
  • Students remember lectures better when they take notes in longhand. I’ve noticed this effect myself, and it’s real. The article suggests that writing notes longhand requires you to process information before writing it down, but that’s true of keyboarding as well. I admit I don’t take a lot of longhand notes anymore, but it’s also true that keyboarding and presenting aloud seem to use entirely separate parts of my mind. (I tried to write a story once by dictating into Dragon Naturally Speaking…and it just didn’t work.)
  • In crafting parody, I’ve run afoul of Poe’s Law more than once. Far too many people are so dumb they can’t detect hit-you-with-a-shovel sarcasm when they see it. (Thanks to Jim Mischel for the link.)
  • I just ordered this. Will review when I’ve had a chance to devour and digest it. Fat has certainly been good for me, judging by my weight and blood numbers since I stopped fearing it.
  • Coffee is good for eye health. Isn’t it?
  • Wine is a lot more complicated than you probably thought, and a whole lot less romantic. Nay, it’s industrial, almost…urban.
  • And still more reasons to view so-called studies with extreme caution. If you want to pass off an agenda or some sort of ideological/political/hate campaign, the best way to do it these days is hang a sign on it that says, “Trust me! I’m Science!” (Thanks to Damon Smithwick for the link.)
  • And if you’ve ever used a graph to try to prove something, this may give you pause. (Thanks to Roberta Crownover for the link.)

Daywander

This entry will be a hodgepodge, or as they say in some circles, a “hotch potch.” (I think it’s a Britishism; Colin Wilson used that spelling many times.) Stuff has been piling up in the Contra file. Carol and I have been slighting housework for these past six months, she laid up after surgery on both feet, and me writing what has doubtless been the most difficult half-a-book I’ve ever written. We’ve been cleaning up, putting away, and generally getting back to real life. Real life never tasted so delicious.

One reason is rum horchata. I’m not one for hard liquor, mostly, and generally drink wine. (Beer tastes far too bitter to me.) But Rumchata got me in a second. It’s a dessert cordial no stronger than wine, with the result that you can actually taste the other ingredients, like vanilla, cream, and cinnamon. Highly recommended.

People ask me periodically what I’ve been reading. After soaking my behind in computer science for the past six or eight months, I’ve been studiously avoiding technology books. That said, I do endorse Degunking Windows 7 by my former co-author Joli Ballew. I actually used it to learn some of the Win7 details that weren’t obvious from beating my head on the OS. I wish it were a Coriolis book, but alas, it’s not. That doesn’t mean it’s not terrific.

True to my random inborn curiosity about everything except sports and opera, I’ve developed an interest in the chalk figures of southern England. The next time we get over there (soon, I hope, though probably not until summer 2015) we’re going to catch the Long Man of Wilmington, the White Horse of Uffington, and that very well hung (40 feet!) Cerne Giant. Other chalk figures exist, many of them horses. Some can be seen from Google Earth. A reasonable and cheap intro is Lost Gods of Albion by Paul Newman. The book’s been remaindered, and you can get a new hardcover for $3. I wouldn’t pay full price for it, but it was worth the hour and change it took to read. My primary complaint? It needs more pictures of chalk figures, duhh.

Quick aside: While researching kite aerial photography with my found-in-the-bushes GoPro Hero2 sports camera, I came upon an impressive video of the White Horse of Westbury taken from a double bow kite (rokkaku). I have the cam, and loads of kites. All I need now is a chalk figure. (I suspect I could coerce my nieces into drawing one for me.)

Far more interesting than Lost Gods of Albion was Gogmagog by Thomas Lethbridge. I lucked into a copy of the 1957 hardcover fairly cheap, but availability is spotty and you may have to do some sniffing around. If you’re willing to believe him, Lethbridge did an interesting thing back in the 1950s: He took a 19th century report that a chalk giant existed on a hillside in Wandlebury (near Cambridge) and went looking for it. His technique was dogged but straightforward: For months on end, he wandered around the hillside with a half-inch metal bar ground to a point, shoving it into the ground and recording how far it went in before it struck hard chalk. His reasoning was that the outlines of a chalk figure would be dug into the chalk, and thus farther down than undisturbed chalk. In time he had literally tens of thousands of data points, and used them to assemble a startling image of two gods, a goddess, a chariot, and a peculiar horse of the same sort as the Uffington White Horse.

Not everybody was convinced. Even though Lethbridge was a trained archaeologist, his critics claimed that he was a victim of pareidolia, and simply seeing the patterns he wanted to see in his thousands of hillside holes. The real problem was that Lethbridge was a pendulum dowser, and a vocal one: He published several books on the subject, which make a lot of claims that aren’t easily corroborated. Lethbridge claims that most people can dowse, and hey, it’s an experiment that I could make, if I decided it was worth the time. (It probably isn’t.)

The third book in my recent readings is The Physical Phenomena of Mysticism by Herbert Thurston, a Jesuit priest who spent a good part of his life collecting reports of peculiarly Catholic weirdnesses (stigmata, levitation, inedia, odor of sanctity, etc.) and presenting them in a manner similar to that of Charles Fort, if better written. Most of the articles were originally published in obscure theology journals, but were collected in 1952 in a volume that I’ve never seen for less than $100. Last year it was finally reprinted by White Crow Books and can be had for $18. I’m not sure what one can say about reports of people who have not eaten for forty years. Mysticism is a weird business, but physics is physics. The book is entertaining, and it’s given me some ideas for stories, particularly since I have a spiritually butt-kicking psychic little old Polish lady as a major chartacter in Old Catholics. (Vampires are just so 2007.)

If three books doesn’t seem like much, consider my habit of going back to books I’ve read and liked, and flipping through them to see what notations I’ve made in the margins. We all make them; when was the last time you deliberately went back to read and reconsider them? I’ve been dipping into Gary Taubes’ Good Calories, Bad Calories, Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature, Colin Wilson’s A Criminal History of Mankind, and Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist, and arguing with my own marginal notes. One can learn things arguing with oneself, and I’ve been known to change my mind based on things I scribbled in other people’s book’s ten or twelve years ago. (Before that I was too young to have anything like informed opinions.)

For example, I’ve gone back to calling it “global warming.” Climate is always changing, and the assumption that we know all the forces propelling those changes is just wrong–and in tribalist hands, willfully dishonest. Carbon dioxide has exactly one climate trick in its bag: It warms the atmosphere. That’s it. If the discussion is about carbon dioxide, it’s about global warming. Why climate changes is still so poorly understood (and so polluted by political hatred) that we may be decades before we even know what the major forcings are. In the meantime, I want predictions. If your model gives you climate data out fifty years, it will give you data out five. Publish those predictions. And if they prove wrong, be one of those people who really do #*%^*ing love science and admit it. Being wrong is how science works. Being political is how science dies.

I have a long-delayed electronics project back on the bench: Lee Hart’s CDP1802 Membership Card. I started it last summer, and set it aside when the Raspberry Pi gig turned up. It’s basically a COSMAC Elf in an Altoids tin. I had an Elf almost forty years ago. I programmed it in binary because that’s all there was in 1976. And y’know? I can still do it: F8 FF A2. F8 47 A5…

Some things really are eternal.

Odd Lots

Odd Lots